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Backcountry Hiking Safety

By Dan Smuts - June 12th, 2003

Lets start with the things you should always carry with you. These include:
  • Map and Compass
  • First Aid Kit
  • Water Filter (and purification tablets)
  • Multipurpose tool (swiss knife)
  • Space blanket (for insulation or shelter)
  • Nylon cord
  • Flashlight
  • Sunglasses
  • Matches
  • Extra food
  • Clothing
If you pack these things with you every time you go in the backcountry, you are greatly improving your chances of staying safe, calm and comfortable even if something goes wrong on your trip.

Danger: Getting Lost
Remedy: Learn How to Use a Map and Compass and Practice

Everyone going into the backcountry should be able to read a topographical map and use a compass to navigate. Even if you use a GPS unit, having these skills as backup are essential. You never know when your GPS might break or run out of power leaving you stranded if you don't have a compass as a backup. Using a compass is really not difficult and could save you a lot of suffering. So head to your local gear shop, buy a compass, read the directions, and practice. Having good navigational skills insures that you will always know where you are, what the best emergency return route is, and will keep you from ever experiencing the panic, discomfort and danger of being lost in the backcountry. But just in case, always let someone know where you are headed, when you expect to be back, and when they should call for help if you are not back.

If you do become lost - don't panic. Stay calm and stay in one place. Conserve energy by staying out of the wind, sitting on your pack or a pad and setting up shelter if possible. Locate a water source as you can survive for quite a while on just water. Lastly, build a fire. It will warm and comfort you and signal rescuers of your location.

Danger: Temperature and Weather
Remedy: Wear and Pack the Right Clothes for ALL POSSIBLE CONDITIONS and Pay Attention to How You Feel

Cold. Hypothermia is a serious risk in the backcountry. It sets in when your core body temperature drops below normal (caused by cold, wet and wind) and can lead to mental and physical collapse and even death. Knowing how to dress in the backcountry really is a skill. For the greatest versitility in regulating your temperature I would suggest dressing in layers. This means more options when you think in terms of base, insulating and shell layers. Before setting off you need to think about how to stay warm and dry in any conditions you might encounter on your trip.

Even in the summer I never go into the mountains without carrying enough clothing to keep me happy if I get caught in a freak snowstorm. This would include an insulating top, waterproof shell, warm hat and some shell pants. You might think this is a lot to carry but believe me, if you spend enough time in the mountains the weather will change and you will be very happy you carried an extra 2 ? pounds of clothing. Better to have extra stuff and not use it than need it and not have it.

Heat. The human body is far better equipped to handle heat than cold but you still need to be careful of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. If you are backpacking in hot temperatures make sure that you are drinking enough fluids to allow your body to sweat as much as necessary. Also make sure you are replacing your body's salt and sugar reserves with snacks and/ or sports drinks. If you feel excessively hot, stop exercise immediately, seek out shade and pour water on yourself.

Heat stroke is a serious condition and can be differentiated from heat exhaustion because your patient will exhibit hot skin rather than the pale, clammy skin heat exhaustion produces. Move the person into the shade, remove clothing and cool by dowsing with cool water and fanning. Make sure that you don't overly cool the patient as their body's temperature regulation system has failed. Evacuate as soon as possible.

Danger: Lightning
Remedy: Learn the Skills That Will Keep You as Safe as Possible

Mainly a problem in the spring and summer, lightning poses a serious threat to people in the backcountry. The best way to avoid being struck is to avoid ridges, open spaces and caves during lightning storms. If you are caught in an open area or above treeline, make sure you are far away from any metal objects, put an insulated pad between you and the ground and stay as low as possible.

Danger: Dehydration
Remedy: Pack Plenty of Water and Know Where You Will Get More

Dehydration is quite a simple problem to prevent. Just make sure you are packing enough water for the conditions you're in, drink before you're thirsty, and have an idea of where you will be able to find more. Roughly speaking, the average adult requires a minimum of 2-3 quarts a day, more if you are in the desert or cold conditions or at altitude. Dehydration can lead to frostbite, heat stroke, headache, bad judgement and, in extreme cases, death.

Danger: Giardia
Remedy: Treat All Water Before Drinking It

Giardia is a very unpleasant little microorganism that causes severe intestinal disorder and, unfortunately, lives in many of our water sources in the US. The best way to prevent giardia is to filter or purify all water before drinking it regardless of how clear it looks. Treat water by using a filter that traps particles larger than 0.2 microns, a chemical treatment according to its instructions or by boiling water for at least five minutes.

Danger: Getting Hurt
Remedy: Don't Take Unnecessary Chances, Watch for Hazards and Learn Wilderness Medical Skills

In a general sense, there are only 6 things that can kill you. Airway, breathing, circulation, bleeding, shock, spinal (or ABC-BSS). Learn to handle these emergencies and how to evacuate a patient from the backcountry and you'll already be safer. Minimize the possibility of a medical emergancy by always keeping one foot on the ground, being aware of objective hazards like falling rocks or dead trees, and making sure that everyone in your party knows of each others' medical conditions and brings an adequate supply of any medications they require. You should also always carry a well stocked first aid kit and know how to use everything in it.



Thanks for the responses to what can be potential dangers to any hiker out attempting to behold the beauty of the earth.

Posted on January 5, 2009 - 8:23pm
by Visitor

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